The cast of Aladdin pose during a photocall at Hackney Empire (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

Thespians in the woods

Alexander Larman explains how pantomime went upmarket

Widespread suspicion of dodgy-sounding foreigners hailing from far-flung places; gender fluidity running rampant; the ever-present threat of sexual assault by a large man in an exotic and too-tight outfit – it is hard to think of a more British institution in 2019 than the Christmas pantomime. From Belfast to Brighton, theatres all over the land are delighting families with a mixture of high-energy popular songs belted out by familiar faces off the television, innuendo of varying degrees of subtlety and wit, topical allusions that will elicit laughs and groans in equal measure and ever-more outrageous costumes. Taking the family to the panto is an annual tradition all over the country, and, despite the wince-inducing prices (those outrageous costumes do not come cheap), it seems to be one of those dependable traditions that will never change.

 I have fond memories of my own visits to the panto in Bristol three decades ago. The punters knew exactly what they were getting. If one visited the Hippodrome, one could rely on a big, boisterous and splashy show, full of game-for-a-laugh-or-a-cheque celebrities who endured humiliation several times a week in the name of the festive spirit. I have a – possibly erroneous – recollection of Su Pollard appearing regularly, sometimes opposite Leslie Grantham. (This year, she is starring in Dick Whittington at the Wolverhampton Grand.)

Never were these serious thespians honest enough to say that they had just taken on a lucrative role at a lean time of year

 However, if one instead went to the more august Old Vic, an altogether different entertainment was staged. Here, one could expect to see a production of either something seasonally appropriate, such as this year’s staging of A Christmas Carol, or a boisterous and energetic account of one of the lighter Shakespeares or a Restoration comedy. The adults might well have enjoyed this more refined fare rather more, but the children dragged along were liable to fidget impatiently, until hearty laughter was elicited by an especially broad piece of slapstick or, even better, some accidental mishap involving a forgotten line or a dislodged piece of scenery. 

Yet even at the Hippodrome, I remember one or two of the cast, billed well below Su Pollard and Leslie Grantham, of being that venerable and redoubtable type, a Proper Actor. These types, who usually ended up playing the villain, went as over the top as the rest of the company, but they always had a slight air of reserve while they did so. The careful observer might almost read their thoughts: will I appear in the next season at the RSC or the National? Will this (admittedly quick and relatively easy) means of making some decent money over the festive season result in my being taken less seriously as a result? 

This air of defensiveness often fed into interviews that they gave to the local paper. Never were these serious thespians honest enough to say that they had taken on a lucrative role at a traditionally lean time of year for theatre and film work. Instead, there was much specious justification of their prancing about in ludicrous make-up and big coats by saying things like ‘Of course, I see pantomime as a present-day incarnation of the commedia dell’arte tradition…as a continual student of my craft, I attempted to draw my inspiration from the great clowns of yore, like Joseph Grimaldi…I like to vary my rich professional career and it is wonderful to see this level of audience engagement.’ Fine words, and probably a necessary comfort if you’re being pelted with custard pies eight times a week by a former member of Buck’s Fizz.

Yet today, these would-be Oliviers and Gielguds would find far less to be embarrassed about in their chosen means of work over Christmas. Pantomime, always a popular and reliable means of entertainment, has gone notably upmarket over the past few years. This is mainly thanks to the Qdos entertainment group, who specialise in big-name performers appearing all over the country. Of course, there are many of the usual X-Factor finalists and former boy band stars that one would expect, but a closer look at the seasonal stages reveals some unexpected but welcome names popping up. Lesley Garrett, of all people, is giving her Fairy Godmother in Cinderella in Wimbledon, former RSC and Call the Midwife actor Laura Main will be enlivening the Aberdeen version of the same pantomime, and Nigel Havers will once more be bringing some light-hearted thespian gravitas to Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium, where he will be opposite Julian Clary, raising his right eyebrow for England. 

Clary, who initially appeared in a series of televised specials around the turn of the millennium – which, incidentally, proved that pantomime becomes entirely unfunny if the element of live audience participation is removed – has been a mainstay of the glitzy, expensive Palladium revivals since 2016, alongside the starry likes of Paul O’Grady, Elaine Paige and Dawn French. Clary’s sensibility is so ideally suited to pantomime that it is now almost impossible to imagine him in anything else, even if the Daily Telegraph carped that last year’s production of Snow White played host to ‘Julian Clary’s orgy of gay innuendo and self-admiration’. Others might find dialogue such as ‘I woke up this morning and there was eight inches outside my back door’ simply a reflection of what parents in the audience will be amused by, as long as their children aren’t too puzzled by Clary’s neo-Kenneth Williams flamboyance. 

Even if there is no unprecedented ‘serious’ actor this year to compare to Robert Lindsay, who made an acclaimed panto debut in Richmond as Captain Hook in 2018, there are still a host of respected actors appearing up and down the country, taking advantage of a few well-paid weeks of work before returning to classical theatre or contemporary writing. This new legitimacy that appearing in pantomime now has arguably stretches back to 2004 and 2005, when Ian McKellen, after countless more serious roles, played Widow Twankey at the Old Vic in Aladdin, when the theatre was under the artistic directorship of Kevin Spacey. 

While the subsequent revelations of Spacey’s behaviour have tainted his entire career there, there was then a genuine sense of joy and surprise at very high-profile actors, often associated with the great classical roles – including Roger Allam and Frances Barber – appearing on stage in an unapologetic high-camp romp. McKellen, of course, walked off with the main accolades, with Michael Billington joining in the spirit enough in The Guardian to end his review by saying ‘at least we can tell our grandchildren that we saw McKellen’s Twankey and it was huge.’ In fact, Billington’s joke was overshadowed by reality; when McKellen played King Lear in 2007, a scene in which he dropped his trousers revealed him to be, quite literally, ‘every inch a king.’

McKellen was, at that point in his career, gleefully taking advantage of every opportunity that his new-found worldwide fame from Lord of the Rings had offered him. After Aladdin, he appeared in a supporting role in Coronation Street as the devious novelist Mel Hutchwright, where he channelled Twankey once again in such lines as ‘Many’s the time I’ve scrubbed the coal dust off my father’s back as he squatted naked in the tin tub.’ Yet just as his courageous decision to come out in 1988, long before most of his peers, inspired other actors to be candid about their sexuality, McKellen proved to be a trailblazer in making his fellow thespians understand that appearing in pantomime, rather than being something to be faintly ashamed of, is every bit as relevant and demanding an artistic challenge as appearing in Hamlet or King Lear

I would love to see Ralph Fiennes channelling a mixture of Voldemort and Monsieur Gustave as a dapper Abanazar in Aladdin

As with all performance, it is the creation of a heightened character within a self-contained world for a brief couple of hours, and to maintain commitment to this character, even while being pelted with sweets by unruly children. Some might consider it beneath them, and retreat to their comfort zone of Shaw and Shakespeare; others, in increasing numbers, regard it as one of the great thespian challenges. Who is to say that McKellen’s Widow Twankey is any less definitive than his Gandalf, Macbeth or Lear? 

There are, of course, less well-known actors who are so indelibly associated with their particular theatre’s pantomime that it is hard to imagine it taking place without them. One institution that will have to adapt to a new Dame is the York Theatre Royal, who lost their writer, director and star actor Berwick Kaler last year when he retired; he was almost matched in longevity by the similarly hors de panto Kenneth Alan Taylor, who starred at the Nottingham Playhouse well into his eighties. In a valedictory interview Taylor gave to The Stage, he bemoaned the effort that the role entailed – ‘when I look at the schedule, I don’t miss playing the dame…it’s a killer’ – but still claimed that ‘working on the panto is still the highlight of the year.’ 

There are, at any given time, a huge number of pantomimes taking place across the country, each of which is informed by their own regional and cultural differences. One critic remarked on social media that he was ‘just back from my first panto in south London – first time I’ve seen kids squaring up to the baddie rather than just booing them’. And the Hackney Empire’s annual extravaganza is as much a celebration of the diversity and liberal politics of the area as it is a family treat, all led by the great Clive Rowe as the Dame, this year making his thirteenth appearance there. Rowe’s exuberant and entirely likeable performances led to his being nominated for the most august of all British theatrical awards, the Olivier, in 2009, for his performance in Mother Goose: a recognition that even McKellen’s Twankey did not enjoy.

All of this suggests that, with pantomime now being a more than respectable choice for our leading actors, the possibility of what we might see on stage over the next few years is endless. Personally, I would love to see Ralph Fiennes channelling a mixture of Voldemort and Monsieur Gustave as a dapper Abanazar in Aladdin, or Simon Russell Beale and Fiona Shaw resurrecting their sublime double-act from the National Theatre’s 2010 production of London Assurance as a suitably rambunctious Dame and the most quick-witted of principal boys. And it is all too easy to imagine the chameleonic and eccentric Mark Rylance lending his peerless skills to the festive stage, given his love of entirely disappearing within roles. It would be typical of the quixotic Rylance to devote his talent and energy to being one half of a pantomime horse at a working men’s club in Dunstable, but, at least, it’d be the finest pantomime horse that an audience could ever hope to see. 

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